In Nepal, a campaign to reduce official penalties for religious conversion doesn’t go far enough, reports UCAN.

Father Silas Bogati, vicar general of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, criticised a campaign that last week delivered 40,000 letters from the public asking Parliament to reduce penalties for converting someone from another religion. As the law stands, a conviction can result in a five-year jail sentence and a 50,000-rupee ($470 US) fine. The campaign wants a reduction to three years’ imprisonment and a 30,000-rupee fine.

“Asking for a reduction in punishment is not part of the solution to the big problem that is looming in front of us … In practice the government is curtailing religious freedom by making religious conversion a criminal offence,” the priest said.

Nepal’s 2007 interim Constitution declared the country a secular state that maintained neutrality in religious affairs. That was further endorsed when the government approved the new Constitution in September 2015, despite strong protests from Hindu nationalists, who wanted a return to Hindu statehood and who continue to protest over the word “secular” – a word they say is inappropriately adopted from the West.

Hindus were dominant in Nepal’s most recent (2011) census at 81 per cent of a population of 26 million. Christians showed a rise of one per cent to 364,000 since the last census in 2001. But observers felt the figures were wrong, as newly converted Christians would be afraid to state their religion and so remain registered as Hindus, and residents absent when the data was collected were recorded as Hindu.

Christians continue to see the new Constitution as oppressive. A recent decision by the government that shows compromise over the call to reinstate Christmas Day as a public holiday was seen as “antagonistic”, as it grants leave only to Christian civil servants, while requiring that their children must still attend school.